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American Pragmatism: Du Bois, Dewey and James

The emergence of pragmatism in the United States heralded a new way of approaching philosophical questions by ascribing truth not to the coherence of abstract propositions but to the value of those propositions for human conduct. In “What Pragmatism Means,” William James (1907) assures his audience that while pragmatic approaches to philosophy are “nothing new,” pragmatism has been peculiarly fulfilled in America, where it has “generalized itself” into a “universal mission” (156-57). The writings of John Dewey and W. E. B.

Du Bois, likewise, find in America a particular need and opportunity for the pragmatic transformation of philosophy; the former is concerned primarily with the relationship between pragmatism and democracy, while the latter uses pragmatic insights to further the cause of black liberation. While Du Bois owes his intellectual development and heritage to James and Dewey, it is Du Bois’s representation of pragmatism in The Souls of Black Folk that proves most useful, since it simultaneously illuminates the pragmatist method and uses that method to address and propose solutions to concrete problems of human inequality.

According to James (1907), pragmatism is defined as a method of settling philosophical questions by “tracing” their “practical consequences” (155). If a question is examined and none of the possible answers are shown to have any practical impact on individual human development, the question is dismissed as irrelevant. The acquisition of a truth occurs not just intellectually and once and for all, but through a mixture of intellectual inquiry and experience, and through continuous dialogue between “old truth and new fact” (James, 1907:160).

The process of developing truths and thereby developing a richer sense of selfhood involves measuring observed facts and purported philosophical truths against already held perspectives about right conduct and human good, allowing these things to inform one another in an endless cycle of personal growth. For James (1907), pragmatism is at once a philosophical method and a theory of truth which dispenses with “fixed principles” and “closed systems,” embracing instead the pluralist and open-ended nature of truth-seeking (157-58).

There is no point to philosophy, he argues, if it does not serve to improve people’s lives and continuously expand their horizons for vigorous, right living. The truth of a philosophical formula is tied exclusively to the “definite difference it will make to you and me, at definite instants of our life” (James, 1907:156). Invoking Charles Pierce, to whom he attributes the birth of American pragmatism, James (1907) emphasizes that the “truth” of a belief only exists insofar as it produces good conduct (155).

Here, James locates pragmatic philosophy explicitly in the American tradition. While pragmatism “represents a perfectly familiar attitude in philosophy, the empiricist attitude,” its peculiar American form has achieved the necessary balance between materialism and idealism; in the United States, pragmatism has come into itself “both in a more radical and in a less objectionable form than it has ever yet assumed” (James, 1907:156-57).

American pragmatism is thus the first instance of a truly usable, truly coherent pragmatic perspective, and on this basis James claims that it is a new and vital American contribution to philosophy. Dewey echoes James’s claim to the open-ended nature of truth-seeking, the non-existence of “finality” and absolutes, in his discussion of the relationship between pragmatic philosophy and democracy. He equates philosophy with the love and search for wisdom, defining wisdom as “a conviction about moral values, a sense for the better kind of life to be led” (Dewey, 1918:204).

Dewey, like James, posits something more fundamental than intellectual knowledge: the individual’s sense of right conduct, which should direct and evaluate any philosophical inquiry. This means that a philosophical truth is contingent on the values and desires of individuals, and that it really exists only for those individuals who discover and assimilate it. Democracy, Dewey argues, is thus intrinsically related to pragmatism because of the value it places on individual liberties of thought and belief, and the space it provides for distinct, unique understandings of truth.

A philosophy animated…by the strivings of men to achieve democracy will construe liberty as meaning a universe in which there is real uncertainty and contingency, a world which is not all in, and never will be, a world which in some respect is incomplete and in the making, and which in these respects may be made this way or that according as men judge, prize, love and labor. (Dewey, 1918:207) Dewey shows that the plural, action-oriented understanding of truth forwarded by pragmatism is manifest in the project of American democracy.

It is formed by distinctly American values, and is thus a distinct American contribution to philosophy. Dewey (1918) writes that past philosophies, those that seek absolute truth, support socio-political authoritarianism (208). While James is primarily concerned with pragmatism as it applies to individual development, Dewey sees it in terms of its broader political implications. Both thinkers, however, embrace the way that pragmatism limits philosophical inquiry to those questions that have an impact on human well being and the creation of “better institutions” or ways of life (Dewey, 1918:209).

The most important question that philosophy can ask, Dewey holds, is what is the meaning of democracy, and so in this sense pragmatism is particularly suited to the American political landscape. Pragmatism can help to solidify individual freedom as well as principles for collective liberty. It is on this point that W. E. B. Du Bois centers his theory of pragmatism. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, argues that black liberation can only occur through concrete, practical engagement with ideals.

Rather than simply believing in the ideal of freedom, and hoping that belief will carry through to liberation, it is necessary to take ownership of the ideal through tangible self-development and political action. Du Bois was taught by William James, and learned from him the value and method of pragmatism (West, 1989:139). But in a departure from James’s broad pragmatic theory, or Dewey’s generalized application of pragmatism to democracy, Du Bois’s writings put pragmatism to work on a specific level, fulfilling the pragmatic method rather than simply talking about it.

In his discussion of Du Bois’s book Black Reconstruction, Cornel West shows how Du Bois takes pragmatism to a new level. [Du Bois] illustrates the blindnesses and silences of American pragmatist reflections on individuality and democracy. Although none of the pragmatists were fervent racists themselves—and most of them took public stands against racist practices—not one viewed racism as contributing greatly to the impediments for both individuality and democracy (West, 1989:146-47). While Dewey writes about democracy, and James writes about self-development, neither is able to integrate these causes fully into a practice of pragmatic method.

Furthermore, neither seems to understand racism as perhaps the direst threat to American democracy and the expansion of individual selfhood. By linking these issues to racism, Du Bois achieves the most powerful treatment of pragmatism among the three thinkers. In Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois (1903) characterizes black existence in America as a constant struggle for self-integration, a “longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self…He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American” (150).

This echoes James’s view of pragmatism as a dialogue between old and new ideas, or philosophical inquiry and already extant values about the human good. It also shows how pragmatism arises out of specifically American problems and needs. Du Bois (1903) recounts the post-Emancipation failure of black idealism, showing how the “cry for freedom” resulted only in continued oppression (151). It is necessary for black Americans to seek this “ideal of liberty” through concrete means, including but not limited to democratic engagement and self-education.

Ideals are only useful if they are accompanied by practical change, by the “training of deft hands, quick eyes and ears” and a “deeper, higher culture of gifted minds” (Du Bois, 1903:153). The ideal or ‘truth’ of freedom, then, only exists insofar as it is manifest in human action and leads to a better life. For Du Bois, Dewey and James, the pragmatist approach is undergirded by certain deeply held moral values about what sort of conduct is best and what sort of life is desirable. All three thinkers emphasize the individual’s ability to mold the world and evaluate truths according to his or her moral convictions.

In their different ways, they demonstrate the distinctly American quality of pragmatic philosophy, and call on Americans to enact pragmatism in order to escape from the useless, authoritarian notion of absolute truth and realize a fuller and more democratic way of being in the world. Du Bois is arguably the most successful in his call, since he does exactly what pragmatism prescribes: he does not simply philosophize, but actually embodies the pragmatic method. Works cited Dewey, John (1918). “Philosophy and Democracy. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds. ), The American Intellectual Tradition.

Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 163-170). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). “Selections from The Souls of Black Folk. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds. ), The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 157 161). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. James, William (1907). “What Pragmatism Means. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds. ), The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 113-122). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. West, Cornel. (1989). The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism.

Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press. Gender Inequality and the Waste of Humanity Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her essay “The Solitude of Self,” argues for comprehensive reform of women’s rights to education, political and economic equality, and freedom of thought. She constructs her argument on the basis of both individual rights and the common good. Charlotte Perkins Gilman makes an evolutionary argument, stating that the sexual enslavement of women since primeval times has led to the degradation of the human race, and even threatens to extinguish it altogether.

Jane Addams, in her liberal Christian treatise on youthful engagement in remedying economic inequality, shows how women’s mental faculties and drives to do good in the world are suppressed by inaction and frivolity, thus making them miserable. Despite their different emphases and modes of inquiry, all of these thinkers forward the cause of gender equality through arguments, by turns emotional and intellectual, which are based upon the waste of humanity that occurs when women are subjugated.

Cady Stanton’s argument is based on the natural rights of the individual, the necessity of fully developing one’s faculties in order to cope with life, and the uniqueness of every human soul. “The strongest reason for giving women all the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body…is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life…her birthright to self-sovereignty” (Cady Stanton, 1892: 46).

She argues that life is essentially lived in solitude, and that all individuals must be equipped with self-reliance in order to get through it without becoming wretched or dejected. To deprive women of self-reliance, then, is truly a crime against humanity, both on an individual and on a collective level. The underdevelopment of any person’s faculties is both a waste of that individual’s unique humanity and a profound loss to the good of society.

“Seeing, then, what must be the infinite diversity in human character, we can in a measure appreciate the loss to a nation when any class of the people is uneducated and unrepresented in the government” (Cady Stanton, 1892: 46). Gender inequality does not just depreciate the quality of national life, but actually flies in the face of American religious and political ideals of “individual conscience” and “individual citizenship” (Cady Stanton, 1892: 46). On this basis, Cady Stanton calls for women’s access to complete education, property, political equality and equal pay, all of which she understands to be natural rights.

While there are two aspects to Cady Stanton’s argument in favor of gender equality—the need to realize unique selfhood and the common good achieved when citizens are universally competent—she privileges the former, holding that “the chief reason for opening to every soul the doors to the whole round of human duties and pleasures is the individual development thus attained” (Cady Stanton, 1892: 48). By contrast, Perkins Gilman centers her argument on the all-encompassing degradation of the human race that occurs when women are enslaved to men.

She argues that the inordinate emphasis on sex, a result of women’s enslavement and consequent evolutionary development within a closed male space, leads to a weakened human condition and even threatens the extinction of humanity. Perkins Gilman thus goes further than Cady Stanton in her estimation of the collective damage done by women’s oppression. If not the fall of humanity, she claims, then at least the fall of civilization, is a consequence of the lack of female evolutionary development.

“The inevitable trend of human life is toward higher civilization; but, while that civilization is confined to one sex, it inevitably exaggerates sex-distinction, until the increasing evil of this condition is stronger than all good of the civilization attained, and the nation falls” (Perkins Gilman, 1898: 94). All human civilization, according to Perkins Gilman, is and has been subject to this threat, since women have been enslaved since primeval times. The whole history of gender relations, then, has involved the waste and decline of humanity. Addams, in some ways, makes a similar argument.

Though she is not interested in science or evolution, but in the enactment of the social Gospel, Addams characterizes the oppression of young women—the expectation that they will remain within family life and be satisfied with frivolous pleasures—as a waste of their faculties and souls. ‘There is nothing after disease, indigence and a sense of guilt, so fatal to health and to life itself as the want of a proper outlet for active faculties’…In our attempt then to give a girl pleasure and freedom from care we succeed, for the most part, in making her pitifully miserable (Addams, 1892: 122).

Addams is making this argument in the context of a proposal for the direction and engagement of young people’s tendencies toward improving the world, which, she says, are currently rather useless for want of a proper outlet. The plight of young women is but one aspect of this overall problem. The social good is damaged by the repression of young women’s desires to experience action and work on behalf of social equality. All three thinkers, then, connect gender equality with the securing of some common human good.

But Addams and Perkins Gilman focus on the common or social good, while Cady Stanton only mentions it in the context of her larger argument about individual rights. Whether on an individual level or a collective level, however, they all conceive of gender equality as a waste of humanity, and seek to remedy this waste by encouraging women to fight for self-reliance and the right to lead full and active lives. Works cited Addams, Jane. (1892).

“The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds.), The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 132-36). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Cady Stanton, Elizabeth. (1892). “The Solitude of Self. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds. ), The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 40-44). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Perkins Gilman, Charlotte. (1898). “Selection from Women and Economics. ” In D. Hollinger & C. Capper (eds. ), The American Intellectual Tradition. Volume: 2 (2006, pp. 46-51). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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